Tag Archives: teaching

Dr. Seuss: Politics in Children’s Literature

A R T L▼R K

On the 2nd of March 1904,the famous writer and illustratorTheodor Seuss Geisel, known as ‘Dr. Seuss’, was born in Footloose, Springfield, MA, USA. An Oxford University graduate, Geisel published 46 children’s books, characterized by imaginative characters and the use of anapestic meter – a breezy melodic rhythm for comic verse. His most celebrated books include Green Eggs and Ham, The Cat in the Hat, The Lorax, Horton Hears a Who!, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas!. Most of them were adapted extensively to theatre, television and cinema. Geisel’s birthday, March 2, has been named National Read Across America Day by the U.S. National Education Association.

61yCZTz2T6LThe son of Lutheran German immigrants, Geisel was a liberal Democrat and a supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. In the early 1940s, before America became aware of the destructive power of…

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Books on Craft & Process

These are the top books on craft and process I’ve come across. Do you have any to add to the list?

May 2010 News

Great News: My friend Stephanie has many exciting things to share about her journey through publishing.

Good News: The first four chapters of This Novel are thoroughly revised and nearly polished: thirteen more chapters to go. I researched the heck out of 1945 and now I’m wondering—what was the most elitist champagne to be served in 1988? Any ideas? Give me your 80s memories.

Bad News: Georgia continues fall from grace, grace being the elevation granted by one tiny thread holding it up above Mississippi. I’m talking about education [sic].

On Bad Writing

This week I’ve added some words to This Novel. It is not a tremendous amount, but considering I’d set the project aside for several months and had to get back into it, I feel all right about it. The key to producing material is accepting that early drafts are UGLY and BAD. The key is revision: four-fold, five-fold, however long it takes, however many times a writer has to see (vision) things again.

I share Anne Lamott‘s essay “Shitty First Drafts,” from Bird by Bird, with my composition students, but I’m considering teaching it at the beginning of my literature classes as well. Too many students have the erroneous assumption that they can simply sit down and think for a minute and then type a three page literary analysis paper and be “done.” I try and build tasks of serious revision into our course schedule, but ultimately it is up to the student to give a shit or not. Lamott’s essay explains the necessity of bad first (and second) drafts and clearly articulates one of my most overused teacher phrases, “Writing IS thinking.” Lamott also examines the anxiety that surrounds writing, the anxiety to produce, to be good enough. So, is bad writing okay? Yes, it is a means to better writing, to revision. Is it okay to present it as a final product?–not so much, unless the purpose of said final product is to examine ‘badness,’ as does Steve Almond in his Bad Poetry Corner.

I read an article at Salon by Laura Miller, “Bad Writing: What is it Good for?” I appreciate Miller’s discussion of the abundance of crappy prose. The internet provides the perfect showcase. Miller takes various angles in discussing crappy prose, referencing a list of bad books and Steve Almond’s Bad Poetry Corner. The list of bad books from the American Book Review is tenuous, but I can get behind Almond’s pursuit. The key for the success of Almond’s site is that he already has a marked fan base; he has more than established himself, he is almost an ethos, a cause within cyberspace. One can either praise such self-promotion, which I do because I like his work, or one can find it trite and audacious. I find it fun. I, lacking a ‘platform’ and prurient exposure, should certainly shy away from trying to create any sort of medium out of the horrendous song lyrics and poems that my fifteen year old mind may have birthed. THAT needs to stay in the past. I will never claim to be a poet, probably because I am scarred from reading my teenage endeavors. No need to inflict that adolescent angst on my friends in cyberspace.

Bad writing is a necessary precursor to the good stuff. So, get thee bad writing down. And then, work it up again and again.

Oates on Grief, Teaching, Pursuit

Joyce Carol Oates’ essay, “I Am Sorry to Inform You,” in the 2010 The Atlantic fiction issue is a moving examination of loss, grief, and life. Oates discusses losing her husband of 48 years, Raymond Smith. This essay made me love Oates even more, and the level of truth, painful truth, she articulates gives the reader affirmation and new words. Oates speaks what many of us cannot articulate. This examination of grief, life, and profession is a comfort. And I find the below photo, by Eva Haggdahl, to be simply beautiful.

The Long Haul

Why were folks a bit grumpy in grad school? At least, this is how I remember it. A department sans graduate students is downright peachy. This has nothing to do with the individual personalities and everything to do with individuals not being stressed to the gills about a million things. Graduate students in the Humanities deal with a lot of crap–that’s a vague descriptor, but trying to describe some of the complicated issues a graduate student might face would make most folks’ eyes glaze over.

Patricia Cohen, in “The Long-Haul Degree” in the New York Times, explains some of the problems, including the “more than nine years” on average to complete a degree, dissertating, “patching together a mix of grants and wages for helping teach undergraduate courses–a job that eats into research time,” and ultimately facing a bad job market with an increased number of adjunct positions and a receding amount of tenure-track plus benefits type jobs. So, back to the cause of grad school mania, malaise, or grumpiness. Patricia Cohen writes,

Louis Menand, an English professor at Harvard and another longtime critic of the Ph.D. production process, notes: “Lives are warped because of the length and uncertainty of the doctoral education process.” In his new book, “The Marketplace of Ideas,” he writes, “Put in less personal terms, there is a huge social inefficiency in taking people of high intelligence and devoting resources to training them in programs that half will never complete and for jobs that most will not get.”

I like Menand’s phrases “lives are warped” and “social inefficiency.” Cohen highlights problems with the system of financing, the proposal of broadening research options for degree candidates, and the changing job market. This is a must read for anyone who is currently in, has been in, or is planning to enroll in a graduate program in the Humanities.

“Grit” an Indicator of Teacher Success

I urge all educators to pick up a copy of the Jan./Feb. The Atlantic to read Amanda Ripley’s article “What Makes a Great Teacher?”
 
I ran into a former student on campus the other day, and my immediate thought was to tell her “Oh, you should be in my literature class now!” She was a wonderful, motivated student who contributed to class and produced strong work. She passed the class long ago and expressed that she got a lot out of it. Why would I want her to experience the same class again? I’ve changed, the class has changed, and for the better. Nothing was necessarily wrong  before, but I could feel some clumsiness, some stops and starts, some instances of wasted energy (at times by me, at times by my students), and I could see some students not exercising their full potential.
 
Glancing at my syllabi, changes aren’t immediately clear, but I’ve made many incremental changes along the way about how I run my classroom. I’ve executed, assessed, and adapted, repeatedly. I’m not running around searching for new things to teach students, I’m figuring out how to teach them the same material better. The material of certain lessons/lectures has expanded over the years–for example, I now have a great list of movies that capture the essence of the Southern Gothic–but, the basics will always be the same.
 
In the current issue of The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley explores this topic in her article “What Makes a Great Teacher?” Instructors can present the same material and have the same goals for their students. But, in the college classroom, why might I receive blank stares from one group of students and several voices chiming in from another group of students when I pose the same exact question? Minor factors might include the fact that one class is at eight in the morning and another class is at noon. The more important factors to consider are 1) Do they have an answer to my question?  2) Do they care to answer the question? and 3) How do I get them to that place of care?
 
Ripley explores why two grade school teachers at the same school, both beginning with the majority of their students testing below grade level, end up with disparate results: Mr. Taylor ends with 90 percent of his students at or above grade level and Unnamed Teacher ends up with only 44 percent of her students at grade level with none above (far worse than her group began).
 
Ripley’s exploration is a good one, because she acknowledges the complexity of the question, the inherent difficulty in articulating what works. We can see failures in large templates placed on educational systems (no child left behind?) which were designed to make things work. Many things do not work. We know this. But, how do we quantify, document, and then disseminate what does work?
 
The large amount of data and research collected by Teach for America provides the basis for Ripley’s discussion. Ripley finds an answer:
 
“At the end of the day,”says Timothy Daly at the New Teacher Project, “it’s the mind-set that teachers need–a kind of relentless approach to the problem.”
 
I couldn’t agree more. We are never done working on this project of instruction. When we think of Professional Development we might get excited or our eyes might glaze over as we imagine a list of things we have to do to say we did. I can’t even imagine how long this list of things we have to do to say we did is for the average public school teacher.
How can we make a teacher have a “relentless approach to the problem”? Well, Teach for America tries to find the individuals that are like that naturally, naturally relentless. Here are some of the indicators:
 
What did predict success, interestingly, was a history of perseverance–not just an attitude, but a track record. […] Angela Lee Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and her colleagues have actually quantified the value of perseverance. In a study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology in November 2009, they evaluated 390 Teach for America instructors before and after a year of teaching. Those who initially scored high for “grit”–defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals, and measured using a multiple choice test–were 31 percent more likely than their less gritty peers to spur academic growth in their students. Gritty people, the theory goes, work harder and stay committed to their goals longer.
 
Let’s allow our teachers persevere and relentlessly approach their complex problems as they see fit; many hope Race to the Top will give a framework for identifying and rewarding the gritty teachers. And for those of us that teach, let’s take time to reflect on our relentlessness, our grit.

On Language: Part II

On Grammar Girl in the Classroom

I love Grammar Girl.  While driving, I used to enjoy hearing the occasional Grammar Girl podcast on NPR; this was back when podcast was a brand new word. Now, Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, has since penned Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing and The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl.

One thing I love about Grammar Girl is the conversational tone of her pieces; the listener doesn’t feel like he’s being scolded. Also, Grammar Girl uses cultural references, song lyrics, cartoons, and humor to entertain. Remembering why a Bob Dylan or Rolling Stones line is grammatically correct or incorrect serves the same purpose as a mnemonic device and leaves a deeper imprint. (That is, if you aren’t too young to know the music.)

Incorporating Grammar Girl podcasts into the college composition classroom works. Every classroom I use has the computer-internet-projector-audio set-up. So, it is easy to pull up the website and play a podcast. I usually present the Grammar Girl version of a concept a week or so after the textbook-type lesson has come up in lecture. I don’t rigidly pre-plan specific grammar lessons, but there are topics that need to be addressed in every 1101 course.

Grammar Girl topics include such titles as “Which Versus That” and “Myself.” Not surprisingly, the most popular tips are “Affect Versus Effect,” “Lay Versus Lie,” and “Who Versus Whom.”

The best part? The opening music is 100% cheese. The music is cheesy, the jokes are cheesy, the cartoons are cheesy, but it works and it is, for once, not exclusively my cheesiness. It is nice to sit back for four minutes, with my students, and become a listener to another professional; the dialogue opens up. After listening to and discussing a Grammar Girl episode, students are likely to voice more questions about language, questions they may have before ignored because they thought the questions were stupid or that they were simply doomed to not ever get it.

Once students see that real people are phoning/emailing the Dr. Drew of language and voicing their questions and complaining about their insecurities, accessibility happens. It’s not as saucy as Loveline, but the objective is the same: demystify…

These concepts are no longer mystifying things that you have to get ‘right’ in order to get an ‘A’ on a paper in that one class. These concepts are things that exist in our language, which is part of everything, so we may as well ask questions and investigate and try to figure it all out. These concepts are not things to hate. These concepts are not things to patently not get.